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Toronto-area basketball is a strong World Cup away from reaching its peak

Julian Catalfo / theScore

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TORONTO - Every NBA superstar's career includes a defining moment as an up-and-comer that signals to the world, "I'm here."

But how does a city, or a region, or a country, announce that it's arrived? For Canadian basketball, and more specifically Toronto-area hoops, that moment is well within reach this summer.

It's become commonplace to categorize basketball in Canada as underrated, or on the rise; something growing but still in the early stages of its ascent. Ever since Anthony Bennett and Andrew Wiggins were selected with the NBA draft's first picks in 2013 and 2014, Canada's supposedly "had next."

And while there's no denying the country has continuously produced NBA-level talent over the decade since, it's not a stretch to say that things up north have stagnated. Bennett's career was infamously short-lived; Wiggins failed early in his career to play up to his astronomically lofty expectations; and despite more and more Canadians popping up in the Association, the senior men's national team has yet to secure a top-five finish at a World Cup, and hasn't been to the Olympics since 2000.

Flash forward to 2023, and Canada may finally be having its breakthrough moment.

Hamilton, Ontario's Shai Gilgeous-Alexander is fresh off a monster First-Team All-NBA season with the Thunder, averaging 31.4 points per game. Kitchener, Ontario's Jamal Murray cemented himself as a world-class point guard while playing Robin to Nikola Jokic's Batman during the Nuggets' title run. And the senior men's national team is poised to make noise this summer, even with Murray not on the squad.

Every climb must lead somewhere, and a strong World Cup resulting in an Olympic berth would signify Canada reaching its basketball summit. And if it happens, the country will have Toronto to thank.

Calipari's 🇨🇦 connection

Hall of Fame coach John Calipari has had his fair share of talent come through his doors since taking the Kentucky job back in 2009, pushing 53 players who played for the Wildcats to the NBA. And from that group, two Canadians who grew up within a two-hour drive of Toronto are arguably among his five best alumni.

Chicco Nacion / theScore

Calipari very much enjoys talking about Gilgeous-Alexander and Murray, who both had phenomenal freshman campaigns in Lexington before being drafted in the lottery. The famed coach raves about the hoops talent in the Greater Toronto-Hamilton Area, using SGA and Murray as his two prime examples.

"(Toronto) is one of my favourite cities in the world to go to. I love coming up here to recruit," Calipari told theScore.

Fresh off a visit to Toronto icon Drake's house (the musician and coach are tight), Calipari reflects on what makes basketball players from the area so successful - primarily their attitudes.

"They don't seem to be spoiled by all the stuff. The lists, the draft lists, the five-star, the four-star, the three-star. It doesn't mean anything. But (in Canada), it truly doesn't mean anything," said Calipari, "How do we not get every Canadian that can play? I don't care if they say 'Eh' to me, eh?"

Gilgeous-Alexander and Murray are two of many talents from the Toronto area who've contributed greatly to Canada's emergence. It's also clear a camaraderie has emerged among players who grew up in the region. While many people in Hamilton, Kitchener, and other surrounding cities rightfully claim guys as their own, Toronto's always been home base for the area's hoopers; a community's developed, and it's stayed strong over the years.

Garrett Ellwood / National Basketball Association / Getty

“I played with (Rockets forward) Dillon Brooks in AAU, I played against Shai, (and Timberwolves guard) Nickeil Alexander-Walker, same thing," Murray told theScore. "I could go down the line. We’ve all seen each other growing up and have a feel for each other. And not just on the court, but off the court."

Busy Toronto hoops summer

Months after Murray and SGA's unprecedented success, that basketball community in and around Toronto is evident.

The Globl Jam tournament that saw Calipari's Kentucky win the men's side drew fans and attention from across the world in early July, as well as other big names in the Canadian hoops scene. Also occurring at the same time was the Toronto Pro-Am, which featured some of the area's best professional players in an intimate setting suited for young fans.

Finally, the Scarborough Shooting Stars - representing one of the Toronto region's most basketball-crazed pockets - won their first CEBL championship in only their second season of existence.

Myck Kabongo was a key bench fixture on the Shooting Stars this season. He grew up in the heart of Toronto around the same time as Wiggins and Bennett, excelling locally before playing prep hoops in the U.S. and attending the University of Texas as a McDonald's All-American point guard.

While Kabongo never made the NBA, and has recently been playing internationally for the Democratic Republic of Congo (his birth country), he's a fitting representation of Toronto's basketball landscape: a player who came up with the region, as its talent was beginning to get recognized, who's still grinding today.

Rene Johnston / Toronto Star / Getty

"There have been drastic changes, it's cool to see the game has grown so much," Kabongo told theScore, "I'm happy that the next generations will have it easier and easier - that's what it's about."

All eyes on World Cup, and Paris

To cap off a busy summer of Toronto basketball events, nearly all of Canada's best players came together at the Raptors' practice facility for training camp ahead of a potentially monumental World Cup (which begins Friday).

SGA was there, as was Murray, of course. So were Brooks, Alexander-Walker, Mavericks big man Dwight Powell, Knicks forward RJ Barrett, Thunder guard Luguentz Dort, Jazz forward Kelly Olynyk, and reigning NCAA Player of the Year Zach Edey. Never before had so much Canadian basketball talent been under one roof.

"There's definitely a culture that we're starting to build. And I think that's the reason for the commitment," Gilgeous-Alexander told theScore at camp. "Everyone wants to play in the Olympics."

Nearly all the players on Canada's upcoming World Cup roster aren't old enough to remember Canada competing in Sydney 23 years ago. In order to qualify for Paris, Canada will need to finish in the top two in the Americas region.

Slotted in a group with powerhouse France, Latvia, and Lebanon, an undefeated round-robin slate would likely help Canada avoid top-ranked Spain in the first round of elimination games. Should it advance to the quarterfinals, Canada may be talented enough to beat everyone but the U.S. in the Americas group. But Canada's heard this story before.

The Olympics futility streak should have ended in 2021. Canada dropped an overtime heartbreaker to a clearly inferior Czech Republic squad in the semifinals of a qualifier tournament - on home soil, no less - that sent the winner to China. Failing to get over the hump in such devastating fashion is something the players will not forget.

"It was tough. We didn't really know what to say, we kind of did everything we could," Dort, one of five players on both the 2021 and 2023 teams, told theScore. "At the end of the game, we all had a conversation in the locker room. I'm like: If we want to do this for real, we've all got to commit to it and come every summer, and I feel like the message was passed along with all the guys that are here right now."

One major change between then and now is at head coach, with former Raptors and now 76ers coach Nick Nurse stepping down and Kings assistant Jordi Fernandez taking over. Fernandez has spent time coaching both world No. 1 Spain and an upstart Nigeria program, and promises to play more of a FIBA style of basketball to pair with all the talent.

Fernandez is clearly excited when talking about how grateful he is for the opportunity; he raves about what he thinks his team can accomplish. And sitting only steps away from the program's new bench boss when we spoke was Alexander-Walker, who embodies that "immense potential."

NAW's time

Alexander-Walker played some of the best basketball of his career in those disappointing 2021 qualifiers. Slowly progressing in the NBA after a few up-and-down seasons, the swingman has a chance to parlay his professional momentum and strong FIBA play into a giant role this summer. Above all, he knows exactly why he's competing for his country.

"It's just about showing the world who you are, and putting that respect on the people that came before me, and the people that will come after me. Laying the foundation," Alexander-Walker said. "As a kid, I didn't really understand it, I'll definitely say that."

DeFodi Images / DeFodi Images / Getty

Alexander-Walker added: "Then as you start to grow up and appreciate where you're from, and understand that that is your heritage, that's your story, that's who you are, it just really makes you take pride in it ... to have my family's name on my back, and Canada on the front."

Alexander-Walker takes pride not only in being Canadian, but also in representing Toronto. The 24-year-old was the only player who attended Globl Jam, showed out in the Toronto Pro-Am, and who is suiting up in the World Cup. He literally wears it: he has a giant tattoo on his right forearm, which includes a Canadian flag, the word "Toronto" in big letters, and different symbols representing the neighborhood where he grew up.

Alexander-Walker's connection to this year's squad is enhanced by the addition of his All-Star cousin, Gilgeous-Alexander. And that's not the only true bloodline on the team: though Barrett may consider the Canada roster "kind of like family," the senior men's general manager is his father, Rowan.

Interwoven through these relationships is a common thread: a tie to the Toronto area. In all, nine players on Canada's roster hail from within an hour of the city. Most have spent extensive time playing in the region, between youth AAU tournaments, prep schools, and summer exhibitions. In a FIBA basketball landscape where chemistry and connection is invaluable, the geographical closeness is a bigger deal than meets the eye.

picture alliance / picture alliance / Getty

Canada medaling in the World Cup for the first time, or earning an automatic Olympics berth, would be a watershed moment for the program. Over the past 20 years, Canadian basketball has seen its ups and downs, while still maintaining steady growth, but international success now, today, would prove that the commitment mattered, that it paid off. And it is possible.

And if it happens, Toronto will be a big reason why, with SGA taking on primary scoring responsibilities, Barrett playing option 1B, Alexander-Walker providing a spark off the bench, and Edey bringing major size.

While a long World Cup run and an Olympic berth would mean so much for the sport in communities around the country, all eyes are on Toronto, its mecca.

After years on the cusp, promising to break through, Canada, spurred by the Toronto region, appears ready - finally - to announce its presence to the basketball masses.

"Toronto's elite for sure, but the rest of the world doesn't really know. So it's sort of still coming up, I guess," Kabongo said. "We know we're there, here in Toronto, but the rest of the world doesn't know yet. And that's kind of Toronto, right? That's just kind of who we are."

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